Philosophy 154 - 8.4.1 Hedonism

Some philosophers describe well-being as obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. The general term for this approach is hedonism. The term hedonism has a different meaning in philosophy than in popular usage. In everyday language, hedonism refers to extravagant indulgence in bodily pleasures. By contrast, philosophical hedonism is not about just bodily pleasure—it takes emotional and mental pleasure and pain into account as well. A philosophical hedonist will prioritize intellectual pleasures or long-lasting pleasures that contribute to a good and meaningful life, rather than momentary and fleeting pleasures.

Hedonism is based on the idea that pleasure and pain are the two most fundamental emotions or states of being. For a hedonist, pleasure is good and pain is bad, and for this reason they can serve as principles for determining well-being.

Epicurus’s Hedonism

Hedonism has a long philosophical history. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) founded a school of philosophy called Epicureanism, which taught that pleasure is the highest good. Epicurus’s concept of pleasure, however, is not simply physical and is far from being extravagant, materialistic, or indulgent. He taught that a life of moderation, virtue, and philosophy would be the most pleasurable. He believed it was important to tame wild desires that are impossible to satisfy and that cause unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. His philosophy focused on methods for achieving freedom from mental, emotional, and physical pain through ataraxia (tranquility). For Epicurus, achieving ataraxia requires confronting irrational fears, especially the fear of death.

The concept of hedonism and even the word Epicurean have very different meanings in popular usage now. Hedonism describes reveling in indulgent bodily and sensory pleasures like food, alcohol, and sex. The term Epicurean often refers to individuals who take especial pleasure in food and drink, like a wine connoisseur or someone obsessed with Michelin star restaurants. However, for Epicurus, the best thing in life was having good friends who want to discuss philosophy.


Utilitarianism is considered hedonistic because it bases moral theory on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. For the utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), values rest on pleasure and pain, which are psychological states of mind. Pleasure is a psychological state of mind that is intrinsically good, while pain is a psychological state of mind that is intrinsically bad. The value of an action thus rests on the psychological state it causes. Utilitarians evaluate actions based on the intensity, duration, certainty, and extent of pleasure or pain and the number of people it affects. In general, utilitarian philosophers believe that an action is moral if it leads to the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. Thus, utilitarianism can be described as a method for maximizing well-being.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax